When we think of leadership traits, we typically think of vision, confidence, strength, charisma and decisiveness. An important leadership trait that’s often overlooked is humility. Humility is the antithesis of arrogance, an attitude that can severely damage our reputation and relationships with others.
As I’m writing this article in the middle of the Wimbledon Championships, let’s look to tennis for an example of why humility is such a pleasing quality. And then I’ll segue into exploring why humility is such an essential, albeit lacking leadership quality when it comes to business leadership.
The two tennis players I respect most in the current game are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Why? Because in spite of their phenomenal success, they embody humility. This was demonstrated brilliantly during the post-match talk of the 2008 Wimbledon final, arguably the greatest tennis match ever played.
After the match, the winner, Nadal, spoke of his sense of achievement in having been part of such a historic match; whilst Federer, the loser, (who may have played the best shot ever seen – a jaw dropping backhand down the line that would almost certainly have broken the spirit of any other opponent) said that he too was proud to have been part of such an epic encounter. What you see exemplified in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is mutual respect and humility. This is what makes them both such supreme champions, and so likeable.
And if you listen to any interview, you’ll hear the champion refer to their opponent in respectful terms and acknowledge the role their team has played in their success. You’ll hear comments like “I don’t take appearing on Wimbledon’s Centre Court for granted.”
Whilst the great tennis champions fight it out on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, here in the UK, the question of our country’s leadership post Brexit is high in the national consciousness. The election of a new Conservative Leader and Prime Minister is in progress whilst the leadership of the Labour party remains in crisis. One of the questions we need to address as a country is what kind of leaders do we want? Thankfully not Michael Gove, the UK equivalent to the House of Cards’ Frank Underwood.
Why is humility such an overlooked leadership quality?
The word humility is often misunderstood. Dictionaries define it as “a modest opinion of one’s own importance,” “the quality of not thinking you are better than other people,” and “self-restraint from excessive vanity.” What it isn’t is false modesty or disavowing our accomplishments. Humility derives from our inner sense of self-worth. Humble leaders are grounded by their beliefs, their values, and the principles by which they lead. Ultimately, they know that to lead is to serve their customers, employees, investors, communities, and ultimately, society through their work.
Getting the balance between arrogance, supreme confidence and humility right is a real challenge. But according to Jim Collins, the former Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, humility is the hallmark of a Level 5 leader. (For more on Level 5 Leadership, read Jim Collins’ Good To Great) and my article, Business Lessons From Jim Collins’ Good To Great). It’s especially important for those of us whose livelihood depends on marketing ourselves effectively. When building our personal brand, our aim is to present our services with confidence, but without coming across as conceited, arrogant or narcissistic.
Research in the January 2014 issue of the Administrative Science Quarterly found that in the workplace, managers who exhibit traits of humility – such as seeking feedback and focusing on the needs of others – resulted in better employee engagement and job performance.
A recent Catalyst study backs this up, showing that humility is one of four leadership factors essential for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included. In a survey of more than 1500 workers from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the U.S., researchers found that when employees observed altruistic or selfless behaviour in their managers, they were more likely to report feeling included in their work teams. This was true for both women and men.
Employees who perceived altruistic behaviour from their managers also reported being more innovative, and more likely to suggest new product ideas and ways of working better. They were more likely to engage in ‘team citizenship’ behaviour, go beyond the call of duty, pick up the slack for an absent colleague – all indirect effects of feeling more included in their work place.
4 ways we can demonstrate humility in our own leadership
- Share our mistakes as teachable moments. When leaders admit to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too. We also tend to connect better with people who share their imperfections and foibles because they appear more “human.” This is important in diverse work places, where displays of humility can remind group members of their common humanity and shared objectives.
- Engage in dialogue, not debate by listening to different points of view. All too often leaders are more focused on “winning” arguments rather than valuing the point of view of others. When people debate in this way, they become so focused on proving the validity of their own views that they miss out on the opportunity to establish all the facts.
- Embrace uncertainty. Ambiguity and uncertainty are par for the course in today’s business environment. When leaders have the humility to admit that they don’t have all the answers, they create space for others to step forward and offer solutions. This increases the likelihood that we will get all the information we need for good decision making.
- Role model being a “follower.” Inclusive leaders empower others to lead. By reversing roles, leaders not only facilitate the development of their managers and employees, but they model the very act of taking a different perspective, a behaviour that is critical to effective team working.
Join The Conversation
Questions: Do you think humility matters in leadership? If so, which leader, for you, best exemplifies this quality? I love reading your feedback so do let me know in the comments box below.
Explore These Additional Resources
If you enjoyed this articles, you may also like:
- What Does Brexit Mean For UK Small Business?
- Business Lessons From Jim Collins’ Good To Great
- Magnanimity: The Quality That Made Mandela An Exceptional Leader
I help micro business owners (with less than 9 employees) formulate and implement the right business strategy so that they can make the transition to a small business (10 to 49 employees) and then on to a medium sized business (50 to 249 employees). I do this by helping them to increase profitability, continuously improving their business results and focusing relentlessly on their core priorities. A former CEO, I took a leap of faith when I left my 25 year corporate career to set up my London based business coaching and consultancy practice. Because of my practical experience in the trenches, hard work, warm, no fluff, down to earth approach, I’ve built a global reputation, and am delighted to have a client list in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
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